What “climate skeptics” have in common with “believers”: a stubborn attraction to evidence-free, just-so stories about the formation of public risk perceptions

My aim in studying the science of science communication is to advance practical understanding of how to promote constructive public engagement with the best available evidence—not to promote public acceptance of particular conclusions about what that evidence signifies or public support for any particular set of public policies.

When I address the sources of persistent public conflict over climate change, though, it seems pretty clear to me that those with a practical interest in using the best evidence on science communication are themselves predominantly focused on dispelling what they see as a failure on the part of the public to credit valid evidence on the extent, sources, and deleterious consequences of anthropogenic global warming.

I certainly have no problem with that! On the contrary, I’m eager to help them, both because I believe their efforts will promote more enlightened policymaking on climate change and because I believe their self-conscious use of evidence-based methods of science communication will itself enlarge knowledge on how to promote constructive public engagement with decision-relevant science generally.

Indeed, I am generally willing and eager to counsel policy advocates no matter what their aim so long as they are seeking to achieve it by enhancing reasoned public engagement with valid scientific evidence (and am decidedly uninterested, and adamantly unwilling, to help anyone who wants to achieve a policy outcome, no matter how much I support the same, by means that involve misrepresenting evidence, manipulating the public, or otherwise bypassing ordinary citizens’ use of their own reasoning powers to make up their own minds).

One thing that puzzles me, though, is why those who are skeptical about climate change don’t seem nearly as interested in practical science communication of this sort.

Actually, it’s clear enough that climate skeptics are interested in the sort of work that I and other researchers engaged in the empirical study of science communication do. I often observe them reflecting thoughtfully about that work, and I even engage them from time to time in interesting, informative discussion of these studies.

But I don’t see skeptics grappling in the earnest—even obsessive, anxious—way that climate-change policy advocates are with the task of how to promote better public understanding.

That seems weird to me.

After all, there is a symmetry in the position of “believers” and “skeptics” in this regard.

They disagree about what conclusion the best scientific evidence on climate change supports, obviously. But they both have to confront that approximately 50% of the U.S. public disagrees with their position on that.

The U.S. public has been and remains deeply divided on whether climate change is occurring, why, and what the impact of this will be (over this entire period, there’s also been a recurring, cyclical interest in proclaiming, on the basis of utterly inconclusive tib bits of information, that public conflict is dissipating and being superseded by an emerging popular demand for “decisive action” in response to the climate crisis; I’m not sure what explains this strange dynamic).

The obvious consequence of such confusion is divisive, disheartening conflict, and a disturbingly high likelihood that popularly accountable policymaking institutions will as a result fail to adopt policies consistent with the best available scientific evidence.

Don’t skeptics want to do something about this?

A great many of them honestly believe that the best available evidence supports their views (I really don’t doubt this is so). So why aren’t they holding conferences dedicated to making sense of the best available evidence on public science communication and how to use that evidence to guide the public toward a state of shared understanding more consistent with it?

I often ask skeptics who comment on blog posts here this question, and feel like I am yet to get a satisfying answer.

But maybe my mystification reflects biased sampling on my part.

Maybe, despite my desire to engage constructively with anyone whose own practical aims involve promoting constructive public engagement with scientific evidence, I am still being exposed to an unrepresentative segment of the population who fit that description, one over-representing climate-change believers.

I happened across something that made me think that might be so.

It consists of a blog post from a skeptic who is trying to explain to others who share the same orientation why it is that such a large fraction of the U.S. population believes that climate change resulting from fossil fuel consumption poses serious risks to human wellbeing.

As earnest and reflective as the account was, this climate skeptic’s account deployed exactly the same facile set of just-so tropes—constructed from the same evidence-free style of selective synthesizing of decision-science mechanisms—that continue to dominate, and distort, the thinking of climate change believers when they are addressing the “science communication problem.”


Why do people believe that global warming has already created bigger storms? Because when “experts” repeatedly tell us that global warming will wreck the Earth, we start to fit each bad storm into the disaster narrative that’s already in our heads.

Also, attention-seeking media wail about increased property damage from hurricanes. . . .

Also, thanks to modern media and camera phones, we hear more about storms, and see the damage. People think Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,800 people, was the deadliest storm ever. But the 1900 Galveston hurricane killed 10,000 people. We just didn’t have so much media then.

Here they are, all the usual “culprits”: a “boundedly rational” public, whose reliance on heuristic forms of information-processing are being exploited by strategic misinformers, systematically biased by “unbalanced” media coverage and amplified by social media.

Every single element of this account—while plausible on its own—is in fact contrary to the best available evidence on public risk perception and the dynamics of science communication.

  • Blaming the media is also pretty weak. The claim that “unbalanced” media coverage causes public controversy on climate change science is incompatible with cross-cultural evidence, which shows that US coverage is no different from coverage in other nations in which the public isn’t polarized (e.g., Sweden). Indeed, the “media misinformation” claim has causation upside down, as  Kevin Arceneaux’s recent post helps to show. The media covers competing claims about the evidence because climate change is entangled in culturally antagonistic meanings, which in turn create persistent public demand for information on the nature of the conflict and for evidence that the readers who hold the relevant cultural identities can use to satisfy their interest in persisting in beliefs consistent with their identities.
  • The “internet echo chamber” hypothesis is similarly devoid of evidence. There are plenty of evidence-based sources that address and dispel the general claim that the internet reinforces partisan exposure to and processing of evidence (sources that apparently can’t penetrate the internet echo chamber, which continues to propagate the echo-chamber claim despite the absence of evidence).

But here’s one really simple way to tell that the blog writer’s explanation of why people are overestimating the risks of climate change is patent B.S.: it is constructed out of exactly the same mechanisms that so many theorists on the other side of the debate imaginatively combine to explain why people are underestimating exactly the same risks.

This is the tell-tale signature of a just-so story: it can explain anything one sees and its opposite equally well!

So what to say?

Well, it turns out that despite their disagreement about what the best scientific evidence on climate change signifies–about what the facts are, and about what policy responses are appropriately responsive to them—advocates in the “believer” and “skeptic” camps have some important common science communication interests.

They both have an interest in understanding it and using it, as I indicated at the outset.

But beyond that, they both have a stake in freeing themselves from the temptation to be regaled by story tellers, who, despite the abundance of evidence that now exists, remain committed to perpetually recycling empirically discredited just-so stories rather than making use of and extending the best available evidence on what the science communication problem consists in and how to fix it.

Leave a Comment